Schools Old-school activist

  • By Suzanne Taylor
  • This article was published more than 4 years ago.
  • 29 Nov 2019
Jan van Dalfsen. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

Laverton teacher Jan van Dalfsen has a long history of firebrand activism, with a strong focus on student-led teaching and resisting what he calls a “factory model” of schooling.

When Jan van Dalfsen once told a few of his colleagues at Laverton College about the time he was involved in a raging riot at Aquarius Festival in Nimbin, they assumed he was joking. It’s not your typical staffroom conversation over a Scotch Finger and a quick mug of tea. “I hadn’t ever talked about my formative activist years,” he says.

That festival was in 1973, and Jan had gone there as Education Vice President of the Australian Union of Students (AUS) to deliver workshops on alternative education. Except his tumble-down van conked out on the way, waylaying Jan, two printing presses and some comrades from radical publishing co-op Walker Press. “Think: Maoists, Trots, anarchists, land rights activists, anti-apartheid campaigners, alternative educationalists, East Timor defenders,” he laughs.

As it turned out, they made it to Nimbin in time to get caught up in a riot between hundreds of hippies and police but not, unfortunately, in time for Jan to deliver his workshops. Instead, he sputtered back to Melbourne and resumed his life studying at uni, organising for the AUS, campaigning against apartheid, writing articles on alternative education and lobbying the odd politician. “I hitchhiked and flew all over the country visiting students and professors at around 50 universities, as well as meeting with ministers in Canberra,” Jan recalls.

“Back when I was studying early childhood education, we were taught to work with whatever the kids brought to class and weave that into our lessons. That’s very hard to do now.”

Inspired by Croatian-Austrian philosopher and de-schooling advocate Ivan Illich, Jan advocated for stamping out compulsory schooling, and energising the whole system with more focus on work experience, community-based learning, and continuing education. “I remember being absolutely slated by Kim Beazley senior, who described our policies as ‘outrageous’,” chuckles Jan, before adding as an afterthought: “I don’t think we had any actual policies to be honest.”

Fast forward five decades and Jan may no longer be thumbing around the country trying to convince politicians to stop forcing kids to go to school, but he still has plenty to say about what he sees as an increasingly stultifying education system. “We’re being asked to cover more and more in the curriculum but the authorities are reluctant for us to leave things out. Something’s got to give.”

For Jan, alongside the significant workload issues caused by the volume of mandatory curriculum, standardisation is contributing to a vapid educational experience for students. “I’ve got so much personal experience, so many stories and insights that I could bring to the classroom,” he says. “But now, if it’s not set out in this narrow curriculum, and if not every teacher in your subject area is prepared to run with it, you can’t do it.”

It’s a factory model of schooling that, according to Jan, devalues and ignores the unique insights that every individual can bring to the classroom. “Back when I was studying early childhood education, we were taught to work with whatever the kids brought to class and weave that into our lessons. That’s very hard to do now.”

Jan van Dalfsen in the grounds of Laverton College. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

As a primary school teacher in the 70s, Jan remembers having the freedom to encourage his students to find their own entry points into any given subject. “When I was at school myself, I learnt to hate poetry because it was so prescriptive, so I approached it by sharing some of my favourite poems with the kids. By the end of term, they could quote their own favourite poem from heart.”

It’s clear that Jan delights in being able to run with a student’s natural curiosity or fascination for a topic. But he understands that student-focused teaching requires more than jettisoning a rigid curriculum. “You also need smaller classes and you need the time to get to know each student, to find out what motivates them.”

“I’m accountable first and foremost to my students, because it’s their lives and their futures that I feel responsible for.”

The curtailing of teacher autonomy is also manifesting in what Jan describes as an “increasing obsession” with data collection. “The burden of evidence that teachers are now required to produce in order to prove we’re doing our job is leading what we teach and how. It’s putting the cart before the horse. Reviews should be an opportunity to reflect.”

He sees the current curriculum and assessment issues as symptoms of entrenched, historical problems of hierarchy in the school system overall. “By over-scaffolding, and reinforcing every single day that the teacher’s in charge, we’re creating dependents. As a result, we’re seeing kids who are seeking out answers, knowledge and self-expression, but they’re not doing it in the classroom, they’re doing it on their own on the internet… and that’s a lot more risky.”

These days, Jan’s activism is focused on his immediate community as Laverton College’s AEU rep. As a history teacher, he spurs his students “to get involved, have a voice and be active”. His own raison d’être has not faltered from his early convictions. “I’m accountable first and foremost to my students, not to the hierarchy, because it’s their lives, their futures and their time that I feel responsible for.”

And another thing… 10 questions for Jan van Dalfsen

The most important things I take into the classroom every day are… my understanding of where we are going and why, and my resolve to interact relevantly with each student as we go there.

The most important things to leave at home are… my personal worries.

The best advice I ever received was… from my father, who told me to learn to touch type. Two decades later I finally did.

My top piece of advice to someone starting out in education would be… to maintain your critical and creative faculties, despite pressures to conform.

My favourite teacher at school was… Miss Hadfield, my Grade 3 teacher, who allowed me to use my artistic strengths in class projects so that I grew to like school for the first time, despite having atrocious spelling.

The people I admire most are… honest, open and compassionate.

The book that changed my life was… The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.

The albums that changed my life were… in order, the Swingle Singers’ jazzed-up version of Bach, a double album of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, which started my interest in classical music, and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

In my other life, I am… musical, creative and a Christian greenie.

If I met the education minister… I’d tell him teachers should be valued and trusted as the professionals they are, instead of having formulaic patterns imposed on them.

The most important thing the union does for its members is…to protect them from the abuses of power.

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